Lately, there’s been a lot of talk in the media about the “new technology” hybrid cars that use various combinations of gasoline engines, electric motors, generators and batteries to drive the vehicle. One has only to look at the home delivery industry of seventy or eighty years ago to find examples of gas-electric vehicles, although back then they weren’t quite so sophisticated as today’s Toyota Prius or Chevy Volt.
From the start of urban door-to-door delivery of baked goods and dairy products, until well into the 1930s, a horse-drawn wagon was the vehicle of choice. The horse usually knew the route, and would stop and start with very little control from the breadman or milkman, who was busy filling his basket and running up and down walks to leave his wares on the porches of his customers. However, there was a downside to the horse and wagon system. It was slow getting back and forth from the dairy or bakery to the start and finish of the delivery-man’s route. Stabling and feeding the horses was expensive, and there was a sanitation problem, as attested to by the following excerpt from a customer’s letter to his dairy as published in a past edition of Wheels of Time, the magazine of the American Truck Historical Society.
“As I advised your driver, your milk-wagon horses have so synchronized their intestinal affairs with their scheduled arrival in front of my home, that each and every morning of the year they deposit in profuse abandon, souvenirs which might be of great value to a farmer, but which are only something to worry about for a man who gets his food from a sack.
“To make matters worse, we have a pup who never fails to show his gratitude to us by depositing on our front porch warm samples of your horses’ best efforts of the day. Sometimes they sweep well, sometimes they don’t.
“It’s up to you, Gentlemen. Unless I have relief commensurate with the relief your horses have been enjoying, my monthly checks will no longer clear through your bank.”
To solve these problems, several motorized delivery trucks were developed. Divco and Pak-Age-Car were among firms that built gas engine driven delivery trucks with conventional clutches and transmissions. Many drivers objected to the need to go through the gears between each stop, and clutches and drive trains often failed under the continuous stops and starts. Other companies, such as Ward and Walker, offered delivery trucks driven by electric motors that were powered by banks of lead-acid batteries. These vehicles were easy to drive, and started and stopped smoothly, but the batteries were heavy and took up a lot of space, required a lot of maintenance, and took a long time to recharge. In addition, range of travel was limited.
In 1928, two wealthy Chicago brothers, Ward and Niblack Thorne, decided to build a better mousetrap ... er, delivery truck. They formed the Thorne Motor Corporation and built a new factory in Chicago. Built to handle the many starts and stops on a delivery route, the new Thorne Gas-Electric would have the engine directly coupled to a generator, that in turn drove an electric motor mounted on the rear axle. Although the brothers designed the vehicle, they used many off the shelf components, such as Continental engines, Lockheed brakes, and Clark wheels and axles. The generator, electric motor and electrical controls were built to Thorne specifications by the Hertner Electric Company of Cleveland, Ohio.
Control was easy and fast for the driver, who stood up while driving. As the truck pulled up to a stop, the driver closed the hand throttle, which idled the engine and opened the electrical circuit to the motor. He then applied the foot brake which automatically locked down with a ratchet. After making his delivery, the driver kicked off the brake, opened the throttle, and the truck was smoothly and instantly under way.
Initially, the dairy industry was quite taken by the efficiency and performance of the Thorne Gas-Electric delivery truck, and many were sold, with some dairies having large fleets of the handy little vehicles. However, the effects of the Great Depression were soon felt by the Thorne brothers, and the company went into receivership in 1932.
The Hertner Electric Company was their largest creditor, so the Thornes shipped all their remaining machinery and parts to them. Hertner formed Gas-Electric Motors, Inc., and built Thorne Gas-Electrics in Cleveland. Hertner made some improvements in the Gas-Electric, one of which was the addition of dynamic braking, a feature that’s found on most diesel-electric railroad locomotives today. Hertner also built a few Gas-Electric conventional straight trucks called the S-1 and S-2 Models. In photos, the S Models appear to be of about one-ton capacity, and the S-2 is an especially good looking truck, although very few were ever sold. Hertner also switched to Buda engines on some models, and in 1935, started to use a Chrysler 6-cylinder that gave the Thorne Gas-Electric performance to match most passenger cars. The last delivery truck built by Hertner was the C-1 Model which was smaller and lighter, with a 1500 pound capacity and a 4-cylinder Hercules engine.
In 1937, Hertner sold the truck line to the Walker Vehicle Co. of Chicago, a division of Yale & Towne. Walker, who had been building battery powered electric trucks since the early 1900s, now built a gas-electric delivery van using the Thorne design that they called the Walker Dynamotive. The Dynamotive used either a 6-cylinder Chrysler, or a 4-cylinder Continental Red Seal engine, while most of the electrical components were Walker made.
The Walker Dynamotive sold well, and was continued until production was halted in 1942 by World War II. After the war, Yale-Towne concentrated on their lift truck business and the Thorne Gas-Electric design was soon forgotten.
Just another example of how so-called “new technology” isn’t really all that new.